camping

Meal Idea: Stroganoff

When I was on the Appalachian Trail (and, for that matter, any time I’ve lived/worked outside), my meal preferences varied according to the weather.  In the heat of the Mid-Atlantic in the summertime, I enjoyed lighter, salty dinners after a full day on the trail.  However, on chilly spring nights in the South and frigid fall nights in New England, heavier meals were much appreciated.  Vegetarian, beef-style stroganoff is one such meal.

This is one of those meals that didn’t enter my backpack after I found it in a backpacking cookbook; instead, my mother randomly sent it out in a resupply box as a bonus meal.  My grandparents had visited the week before, and she’d made stroganoff for them one evening and dehydrated the leftover serving for me.

When I first saw it in my resupply box, I was kind of confused.  At that point in my hike, I was very family with the dozen meals I would receive in quart-sized freezer bags to rehydrate.  This was clearly none of them.

That night, as I ate dinner alone in a clearing while waiting for friends who were south of me to catch up, I really appreciated the stroganoff.  Its richness was a treat, and knowing that it was part of a meal my family had shared just a few days ago made me feel closer to home.

Making a vegetarian stroganoff for a backpacking trip isn’t very complicated.  It’s a two-part process:  First, make the meal, and then dehydrate it.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • egg-free ribbon noodles (linguine will rehydrate faster than wider ribbons)
  • TVP, or vegan “beef tips” (the latter being my preference)
  • cream of mushroom soup (vegan varieties are available)
  • mushrooms
  • onion
  • garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • oil

1) In a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan, saute a chopped onion, a couple minced garlic cloves, and as many mushrooms as you desire (I’m not much of a mushroom person, despite my efforts to the contrary) until the onions are translucent.

2) Meanwhile, cook the ribbon noodles according to the package directions.

3) Add the sauteed veggies and the soup to the ribbon noodles.  Allow all of the ingredients to simmer for a few minutes, and season to taste.

It’s really that simple.

Once the meal has cooled a bit (and you’ve sampled some), you’re ready to dehydrate it.  You’ll want to slice any large pieces of noodles or protein into smaller pieces to shorten dehydrating and rehydrating times.

To dehydrate the mixture, spread it out thinly on several dehydrating sheets and set the dehydrator to medium heat (125 degrees Fahrenheit or so).  The stroganoff will dehydrate in about 6-10 hours, depending on the sizes of the pieces you’re dehydrating.  Ensure it has dehydrated fully by touch- and taste-testing some of the larger pieces; they should be dried fully.

Then, just divide the mixture into several quart-sized Ziplock-brand freezer bags, putting a backpacker’s portion in each.  On the trail, just add boiling water to a bag, allow the food 5-10 minutes to rehydrate, and enjoy.

The Huts of the White Mountains

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Mizpah Hut

Earlier today, the Appalachian Mountain Club tweeted photos from their Huts, which set me reminiscing about my perception of the Huts over the last few years.  I suppose, like many hikers, I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the Huts.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that  the existence of the AMC Huts in New Hampshire is one of the most contentious topics among thru-hikers.  It ranks somewhere above whether it’s more important to shower or do laundry and somewhere below whether to bring a stove, use a pack cover, and sleep in a tent or hammock.

The High Huts serve as places to escape from the wind and cold of the White Mountains.  They are often staffed by friendly croos, each of which is generally comprised of four young hikers, some of whom (like Sunbeam and Gluten Puff) have thru-hiked before.  During the summer and fall, hikers can stop by the huts to purchase snacks or a hot meal or just to fill up water bottles or use the composting toilets before hiking onward.  The Huts serve as examples of off-grid living, and they are beautiful (and set in beautiful places) to boot.

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Dining Room at Mizpah

It seems that the High Huts are so strongly disliked because they conflict with the distrust of wealth and the all-but-ubiquitous libertarianism of the Appalachian Trail community.  Lest the word “hut” bring to mind an image of a lean-to or crude shelter, I should explain that the High Huts are rather comfortable.  Each building has several rooms: a kitchen, bunkrooms, a dining hall, and bathrooms.  They’re not exactly luxe, but they’re not simple either.  To stay in relative comfort and safety in the Whites costs around $100 during peak season.

The libertarianism of the AT community comes into conflict with the AMC Huts because of the location of the latter.  Much of the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains is above 4000 feet and/or in the alpine zone, which makes camping dangerous and/or prohibited.  In this region, there are few tentsites or shelters where hikers can stay for free.  Here’s where the work-for-stay program at the Huts comes in.  While working for a spot on the floor of a Hut’s giant dining hall might be perceived as demeaning or ridiculous by some hikers, it is seen as generous and thoughtful by others; regardless of their opinion about the Huts, for convenience’s sake (because no hiker wants to hike a mile off the trail to get below treeline), most hikers end up staying at one or more Huts during their thru-hikes.

During my thru-hike, I stayed at two Huts.  The first was Mizpah, which I stumbled into at 2:30 one day when I was battling a low-grade fever.  (I spent a great deal of time toward the end of my thru-hike ill, and I can only assume that the culprit was Lyme.)  While 2:30 is traditionally considered too early for Huts to allow hikers to sign up for the work-for-stay program, the croo didn’t make me beg too much before they agreed that I could stay.  In fact, they invited me to stay without worrying about doing much working and sent me up to the library to nap (and read about the PCT).  The 2012 croo at Mizpah happened to include Sunbeam, so they may have been more understanding and compassionate of my plight.  In any case, I was extremely grateful and happily helped clean up after dinner once I’d rested.

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What a day for a Presidential Traverse!

 

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A stormy morning leaving Madison Springs

My second work-for-stay was far less pleasant.  On the day following my night at Mizpah, I felt well and did the Presidential Traverse.  It was a banner day, and I loved every second of it.  I actually called my mother near Pierce and, through tears, told her that I could end my thru-hike at that very moment because I’d hiked “home” to my favorite mountains and saw all I could possibly have dreamed of seeing.  After an entire day spent above treeline, I was anxious to get a work-for-stay at Madison Springs, as I was not strong enough to hike up and over Madison before nightfall and knew that a storm would be blowing in that night.

Apparently, seven other hikers shared my anxieties, and we all showed up to Madison Springs Hut around the same time, after helping a disoriented day hiker find his way back to the shelter.  The croo at Madison Springs treated us like we were insignificant beggars and made us wait outside as the storm front approached and the temperatures dropped, until their paying guests had gone to bed.  Only then were we allowed to enter to clean up after them.  And, the next morning, even though it was sleeting and the wind was gale force — making my ascent of Madison the most challenging of any of my ascents of the White Mountain 4000-footers — it was assumed that we should get on our way as soon as possible.

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Hike-Thru at Lakes of the Clouds

Nonetheless, over the years, the Huts have served as places of expected and unexpected meet-ups with old friends of mine, as restaurants and “hike-thrus,” and as shelters and refuges.  While I’d probably prefer the White Mountains be home to shelters catering to backpackers than wealthy vacationers, I appreciate the history of the Huts and hope that they’ll continue to be relevant and hiker-friendly in the future.

An Auspicious Beginning, Part Two

Last month, I wrote about my voyage to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  I recounted the drive to Georgia, a restless night in a hotel, and the exchanging of farewells with my family.  What I haven’t yet written about is my first day on the trail.

The traditional way to reach Springer Mountain and the AT’s southernmost white blaze is to ascend the mountain via the approach trail from Amicalola Falls State Park.  Since I set out to have an “iconic” thru-hike, I wasn’t about to miss the approach trail.  And so, after tearfully waving goodbye to my mother and sister and dog, I stepped under the stone archway marking the start of the trail and began climbing up to the eponymous waterfall.

I cannot describe how difficult that first mile was.Springer

People talk about the rigorous climb up 640 stairs beside the waterfall, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really notice it.  I’d learned to hike in New Hampshire — and had just completed a hilly half-marathon — so I was well-prepared for climbs and considered anything less dramatic than 1000ft in a mile to be, if not a cakewalk, a gift, since I’d seen how much more steep and technical the trail could be.  No, it wasn’t the elevation gain that I found so problematic in that first mile; my struggle was all in my head.

Having spent one month on the trail the year before (in 2011) and spoken to many thru-hikers, I had no delusions about what I was getting myself into.  I knew the next five or six months would be beautiful and inspiring, but I also knew that they would be challenging and lonely.  And, I had gone to the trail to answer some big questions, big questions that were lurking in the back of my mind on the cool April day.

There are several parking lots and viewing areas along the first section of the trail.  At each one, I saw families gathered together, looking at the falls and setting off on short hikes.  Like a little kid heading off to summer camp, I already missed my family dearly, and I felt a knot rise in my throat as I watched the other people.

At the highest parking lot, I retreated into a bathroom with my pack — and cried for a few minutes.  I held my little blue flip phone in my hand, considering how easy it would be to call Mom before she’d gotten too far down the road and just head back to Kentucky.  It wasn’t one of my prouder moments.  Then, resolutely, I put the phone back in my pack.  The idea of walking to Maine might have been overwhelming at that point, but, I decided, I’d focus on walking that day.  And the next.  And the next.

I shouldered my pack, walked out of the restroom, and hit the trail, where, almost immediately, I caught up to two middle-aged women who were out on a day hike.  Intrigued by my aspirations to walk to Maine, they invited me to walk with them, and I happily obliged.  Sharing stories from our respective lives, we walked together for the next hour (if my memory serves), until we were joined by Wiffle Chicken, a PCT thru-hiker and AT thru-hiker hopeful.  We four hiked together for a mile or so, and then the women took a side trail and parted company with us.  Wiffle Chicken kept me company all the way to the summit of Springer, where we staged a picture before hiking on.  While he intended to hike on to Hawk Mountain Shelter, I’d planned to end my day’s hike at the shelter atop Springer Mountain, in my quest to create an iconic thru-hike.  Thus, we, too, parted ways.

Not that I was alone at Springer Mountain Shelter.  In fact, there were so many aspiring thru-hikers at the shelter that night (most every one of whom I never saw again) that I tented nearby, rather than sleeping inside the shelter.

The late afternoon was warm.  I set up my tent, stretched out on my mattress, and promptly fell asleep in the spring sunlight.Springer

When I woke up, I made dinner (spaghetti and marinara sauce), fetched water, hung my bear bag, watched a beautiful sunrise through the trees, journaled, and then went to sleep for the night.  At midnight, my very atypically social first day on the trail turned into something more like the rest of my thru-hike.  For no apparent reason, I woke up, in the midst of what can only be described as an existential crisis.  Those big questions that I’d promised myself I’d answer sometime along the trail surged to the forefront of my mind, all at once.  Under the star-filled sky in that clearing atop Springer Mountain, I silently asked whatever would listen “Who am I?” and “What am I?” and “Where I am going?” and “What am I doing?”

And then, somehow, I was asleep again.  And, like it always does, morning came.  I gathered my belongings, bundled up in some warmer layers (as the world was shrouded in a seemingly impenetrable fog), threw on my Deuter, and hit the trail.

Minus the fact that I didn’t see another soul for the greater portion of the next day, which was surprising given the number of people who’d slept at Springer Mountain and prompted me to call home to (only partially in jest) ask my family whether I’d missed the Rapture, the next day was almost ordinary — and that sleep-filled night was ordinarily lovely.  My third day on the trail was, as I wrote in my journal, “one of those days that [aspiring thru-hikers] dream of experiencing, that make their way into travel magazines, that inspire thousands of hikers to climb Amicalola Falls every spring.”  Best of all, while I continued to think about the answers to some important questions, the existential crises held off for another fifty days or so.

Q&A: How to Find the Perfect Campsite

When I hike with non-backpackers, I’m struck by the difference in the way we view the woods.  It’s not that backpackers don’t notice the trees or the wildflowers or the views, but we are also aware of the nearest water sources and campsites.  It seems that one has a different relationship with the woods after living in them for several months.  (This is one of the many topics I could geek out about, but I’ll refrain from word-vomitting here.)

As a result of this difference in perspective — and because of all of the aspiring backpackers I’ve been talking with recently — I thought I should post some tips for finding the perfect campsite.

On the Appalachian Trail, hikers call camping away from a shelter “stealth camping.”  Some hikers walk all the way from Georgia to Maine without stealth camping more than a handful of times; other hikers do so nightly.  In addition to shelters, there are dozens of designated, well-used campsites (many of which are quite lovely and comfortable) in the AT corridor, but the secret to finding a good site that’s not among those begins with knowing where to look.

1) Be on the lookout for campsites near water sources, trail junctions, low points, and high points.

Once you’ve walked along the Appalachian Trail for a little while, you’re bound to notice that campsites, with some exceptions, are found in predictable locations.  Because many hikers don’t enjoy dry camping, campsites can often be found near water sources.  (If you choose one of these, just be sure to Leave No Trace by camping 200 feet from the water and disposing of waste properly.)  You’ll also find them at trail junctions (i.e., when the AT meets a popular blue-blazed trail).  Campsites are common just before and after big climbs, and they can almost always be found on high points or near views, although it is exceptionally important to practice LNT principles if you’re using one of those sites because of their popularity.

2) Remember that campsites might not be adjacent to the trail.

Sometimes, it seems that AT hikers develop (Long Green) Tunnel vision, as they have a tendency to walk right past beautiful outlooks and campsites without noticing them.  On the Appalachian Trail, many established campsites are very near to the trail; however, some of them are several hundred feet off the footpath.  As evening approaches, it’s a good idea to scan the relative distance for established campsites.

Relatedly, watch for side trails, cairns, and even water bars that lead to campsites.  For example, just north of Garfield Hut in the White Mountains, a water bar leads to a much-appreciated complex of campsites.  In North Carolina last weekend, I found (but didn’t sleep at) a sweet campsite in a rhododendron grove that was marked by a couple of cairns.

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A favorite Appalachian Trail campsite of mine, near the end of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in Maine

3) Look up.

Camping in a clearing means that you’ll have a great view of the stars but will also likely wake up under a dew-covered rainfly.  (Similarly, camping near a lake, while picturesque, might make for a damp, foggy morning.)  Camping under a pine tree might make for soft mattress, but you’re unlikely to escape without pine sap on your belongings.  That’s not to say that I haven’t opted for dewy and pine-sappy nights dozens of times, but it is worth keeping in mind.  While you’re looking up, check for any widow makers that could fall on your tent.

4) Consider the weather.

When choosing where to make camp, it’s a good idea to think about the weather.  Dry camping might not be a good idea if the day’s hot weather left you dehydrated; camping on an exposed ridge might not be the best way to spend a cold night.  If there are any clouds in the sky, you probably don’t want to have your tent situated in a depression that might find you in a puddle come morning.

5) Check for signs of wildlife.

One of the benefits of camping away from shelters is the reduced wildlife presence; you’re much less likely to have your tent or food sack “moused” if you’re not camping somewhere mice and chipmunks know to frequent for food.  It’s advisable to look around a potential campsite for signs of bear activity (e.g., scratching on trees, scat, etc.), and it’s generally not a good idea to camp near berry patches or other food sources.  In areas where bears are common, you might want to avoid camping near water sources for similar reasons.

6) Choose unestablished campsites with care.

Because I have a habit of spending long days hiking and making camp only when the diminishing light forces me to do so, I often camp in unestablished campsites.  However, I choose these carefully to minimize my impact, which is especially important on a trail as well-traveled as the AT.  I search for flat spots that are at least 100 feet off the trail and free of plants or fungi.  While most established campsites are lower than the trail, climbing up inclines near the trail has led me to some of my favorite and most secluded campsites.

I think that sums up my process of campsite selection.  How do you select your nightly home away from home?

Every White Blaze, Part Two

A few days ago, before the local cell phone tower went down and plunged my work-life (at a wireless service provider’s store) into chaos, I wrote about why I missed 20.7 miles of the Appalachian Trail during my thru-hike in 2012.  This past Sunday and Monday, I returned to North Carolina to hike those miles I’d skipped.DSCF7670

Being the early bird that I am, I was too tired after my shift ended on Saturday evening to drive all the way to the trail.  Instead, I pulled up to a trailhead in southern Kentucky, where I slept in the back of my wagon.  (My first car was a tiny two-door convertible.  My 1992 Honda wagon makes a much better mobile home.)  The sun hadn’t broken the darkness the next morning before I was up and driving south again.

I pulled up to the parking lot at Winding Stair Gap near Franklin, NC, around noon.  As I needed to get to Deep Gap, I gathered my belongings, stood next to the road, and stuck out my thumb.  Almost immediately, I was picked up by an Episcopalian minister in a muffler-less truck.  He’d only been planning to drive one mile up the road, but he offered to take me all the way to the intersection of US 64 and USFS 71, the 6.2-mile, uninhabited gravel road leading to the Deep Gap trailhead.  Along the way, he told me about a 60-year-old female southbound thru-hiker who attended church service that morning with her section-hiking friend.

I took stock of my utter contentment as I got out of the minister’s pickup and began walking down USFS 71.  While the temperature was only hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight shone on the corridor of the road, making the day feel pleasant.  All around me, yellow birches and rhododendrons stood magnificently, and a roadside stream quietly gurgled.  It was picturesque, and I was completely satisfied to be in the woods once more.

DSCF7680After I’d walked maybe 3.5 miles down the road, a Toyota came rumbling up behind me, the first car I’d seen heading toward the trailhead.  I smiled wryly and stuck out my thumb, and I was soon riding toward Deep Gap with a middle-aged man and his chocolate lab, Jenny.  Jenny got the front seat.

As we pulled into Deep Gap, I felt as though I was transported back in time to the spring of 2012.  The parking area and the trashcans in it were smaller than I’d remembered them, but all of the thoughts I’d had and emotions I’d felt when I’d arrived at the gap after my night at Muskrat Creek Shelter came rushing back to me.

I thanked my ride and hit the trail, taking far too many pictures in the first several miles of my hike, as I marveled at the beauty around me and the well-constructed (and so very not-New-England-style) trail.  Before I knew it, I’d climbed to the top of Standing Indian Mountain, where I enjoyed feeling the sun on my face in a grassy clearing that offered views to the distant mountains and undulating valleys below.  It was undisturbed, unadulterated, quiet, and perfect.  I walked on.

DSCF7714That night, after gathering water from a cold little stream, I made camp in a rhododendron glen at 4200 feet, one of the lowest elevations I would descend to during my hike.  I was sheltered from the wind, but the night was still frigidly cold — and exceptionally long, given that the solstice is fast approaching.  But, I think I’m tougher than I was at the start of my thru-hike, and I didn’t have a problem toughing it out until morning.

Still, as soon as the sky began to lighten, my bag was packed and I was hiking, hoping to warm up under all of the clothing I’d brought with me.DSCF7707

That morning, my solitary hike became social, as I met southbounder after southbounder.  I think I might have freaked out a certain pair of older hikers when I mentioned the Episcopal church they’d attended the day before.  And, then, I surprised myself when I stepped aside to let a southbounder pass and then realized that the hiker I was looking at was the man who’d taken my picture atop Katahdin in August.  The trail is long, but it is very narrow.

Albert Mountain is the most dramatic climb in the early section of the trail, and it is infamous among thru-hikers, so infamous that several hikers got off trail in 2o12 because they’d been intimidated by the thought of climbing it.  Spending so much time hiking in the White Mountains seems to have warped my perception, since it seemed to me that I was atop the foggy summit with little effort.  I kissed the golden USGS marker on the high point, thrilled to see finally see it after 2.5 years.  It was too cold and windy to linger at the summit for very long.

Leaving Albert, the walking was incredibly easy, and time passed too quickly.  With less than one mile to go, the trail rounded a bend and I suddenly found myself in the wide-open, understory-less, leaf-strewn valleys that I picture when I think of North Carolina.  Thinking about all that the trail has meant to me over the last few years and about how much I’ve changed and grown since the first time I saw the sort of valley I was walking in, I found my eyes blurring and a knot forming in my throat.  And then I quickly recovered, as I saw a horde of south bounders walking toward me.  Amazed to see a northbounding hiker, they stopped to ask my itinerary; our conversation ended with congratulations all around.  It was in this happy head space that I arrived in Rock Gap and saw the sign I’d seen two years ago when I got back on trail.DSCF7828

I reached into my pack and brought out an Appalachian Trail pendant I’d been waiting to give myself once I’d really completed the trail.  Finally, I had done it.  I had walked past every white blaze between Georgia and Maine.

On the long drive home, I began earnestly planning my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.